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Bonnie and Clyde has also brought the metamorphosis of success to its scenarists, Robert Benton and David Newman. They began thinking about the movie four years ago in New York City, after mulling over the films of Francois Truffaut Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player. At the time, Benton and Newman were house satirists at Esquire, writing sophomoric advice to college boys like how to fake mononucleosis. The Dillinger Days, a book about crime in the '30s, crossed their desk. The way they like to tell it, a figurative light bulb appeared over their heads when they came to the section on Clyde Barrow.
Benton and Newman were not the first to see the cinematic potential of Bonnie and Clyde. Back in 1937 the gangster couple inspired Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once, a fictionalized treatment of a man ruined by a prison sentence, starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney. As recently as 1958, The Bonnie Parker Story starred Dorothy Provine, a veteran of TV's Roaring Twenties turned into a Yelling Thirties girl.
None of these earlier reincarnations bore much relation to the true Bonnie and Clyde story, and they did not bother Benton and Newman. Frankly imitating the juxtaposition of dulcet tragedy and saline comedy that characterizes the work of France's François Truffaut, the two writers decided to write a script for him even though they had never met him. In their original version, Clyde was a homosexual; he and Bonnie shared the favors of C.W. Moss in a weird ménage à trois. At the time, Truffaut was working on Farenheit 451, but he took a week off to teach the writers the grammar of filmmaking, what the camera could see and say. After turning them loose, he then turned them clown because he was still too involved in Farenheit to do the movie with them.
Do It Now
The script next went to Jean-Luc Godard. "He came over and said, 'Great, let's do it now,' " recalls Newman. "He wanted to leave right away for Texas and do the movie in two weeks." But the producers two friends of Benton and Newman who had never done a movie before procrastinated. The film was supposed to take place in summer, they argued, and this was winter. Godard abruptly cooled on the subject. "All they can think of is meteorology," he complained, and flew back to Paris. Exit Godard.
Enter Beatty, who had heard about the script in a Paris conversation with Truffaut. Beatty found Benton and Newman in New York City, liked their work enough to wait out the original producers' option, then bought the property for $75,000, intending to produce as well as direct under a contract with Warner Bros. Sister Shirley was to star as Bonnie. Eventually, he decided that he ought to play Clyde, which meant that Shirley had to go; after all, the picture featured more than enough gore and transgressions without seeming to add incest to injury.